Musings, Rants, and Random Thoughts

what is a “disruptive technology?”

The other night and throughout Educause, people have been talking about “disruptive technologies.”  Because I’m getting my MBA, I think back to disruptive technologies in terms of products and markets.

For instance, the transistor was a disruptive technology.  However, many manufacturers of radios considered it a process change – they put them in their existing, big radios rather than tubes.  But other manufacturers (Sony, with the Walkman), used it to create a whole new market.  The actual disruptive technology is the transistor, but the innovation was how it was used.

And it is always about how it is used.  How something is put together to create something new.  Google Wave, for instance (yes, I am still trying to get my head around it), combines several items that aren’t really all that disruptive anymore, if you think about it.  Instant-message style communication?  That’s old.  Threaded discussion?  Been there, done that.  Multi-contributors?  Well, a mailing list is a communication “stream” with lots of people contributing, too.

Does combining them all together make it disruptive?  Honestly, in this case, I don’t know.  I don’t see this as creating a new market, for instance, at least in terms of education (I think it does for project management, btw, though it needs to be combined with other tools like document management and calendars, etc (you listening, google?!?!?).

Are there other disruptive technologies out there?  Twitter is massively disruptive (I’d still get in on the VC funding for that (with strong liquidation preferences) if I could).  Wikis are/were, too, but they have not evolved as much as I would have thought.

I have found it useful to take a business approach to a lot of these topics at Educause.  Anyway.

google apps…and what the heck is wave?

So far, after just 1 day at Educause (and pre-conference day, actually), there has been quite a bit of talk about campuses that have gone with Google Apps for Education, and about their latest product, Google Wave.

The talks about Google Apps have gone in 2 parts, it seems.

1 – migration to e-mail was not terrible, technically.  Programmatically, it takes some effort to get buy-in, but ultimately if it makes sense, then it’ll work and it’ll happen and it’s not a big deal.

2 – students are in fact using the other apps, especially Google Docs.  They even write collaboratively.  However, they still save out to Word and send that to faculty (electronically – they could just send the URL to the Google Doc).

I find this second point very interesting.  To me, outsourcing email to Google isn’t a big deal (well, privacy, etc is a big deal, but in a less FERPA-y kind of way, it’s straightforward).  But I seriously wonder whether students are getting the extra advantage of all the collaboration tools.  Signs point towards yes, which is great

What stinks, though, is that it’s so hard to collaborate on Google Apps.  Yes, it’s easy to share a doc and write together.  Recently, however, I wanted to set up some items for my final MBA class.  In order to meet my needs, I did:

  1. Create a Google Group.  Invite people to that
  2. Create a Google Calendar.  Invite same people to that
  3. Create a folder in Google Docs.  Invite…same people to that.

Thank goodness I can at least share folders rather than having to have a document first.  But why can’t Google let us create a site that would have all of these things, available to a set list of people?  An actual collaboration space?  Kind of ridiculous, IMO.

Then there is Google Wave.  I am pretty sure I can figure out how to use it, especially for projects.  But I honestly don’t know how I’d explain it to faculty, or develop a good use case for pedagogy.  Someone suggested that it’s

  1. a new communication paradigm
  2. wiki meets gmail meets IM

So, first, I’m not 100% sure it’s a new paradigm.  I guess definitely a new construct.  Not sure about a new paradigm.

I’m also not sure about the wiki part.  We aren’t creating a cohesive page, after all, with a wave.  More like a stream of messages.

Which does mean that gmail meets IM makes some sense.  But how do I explain what that means to faculty and students?  Especially without Google Docs integration?

the oppression of the iPhone

Here at Educause 2009 in Denver, I’m finding myself once again feeling left out because I don’t have an iPhone.  An application with all of the program information (you don’t have to pick up one of the paper booklets, perhaps) is available, and everyone I talk to just keeps asking me if I have an iPhone.

No, I don’t, and I don’t think I should keep getting left out even by Eduause, of all groups, because of it.

Please note that I in no way think that Educause is doing this purposely – the iPhone is an extremely common platform and it makes a tremendous amount of sense to build an app for that.  And I have yet to run into anyone that has asked me “do you have an iPhone?” or “are you using the iPhone app?” that has had a hint of judgment upon hearing my answer.

But there is an almost oppressive emphasis on using the iPhone at this conference.

I mean, I can use twitter (search, post, etc – va uberTwitter), post to facebook, tag people in photos, etc with my Blackberry.  If mine had a camera (it’s a “business” model), then I could even doing twitpic, too.  Or post to FB’s mobile uploads.  I am more connected to my university’s systems with my Blackberry than I ever could be with an iPhone (due to our infrastructure).

So why I do feel diminished in some way here, at this great sharing of knowledge and ideas, because I don’t have a particular phone?


obsolecense of my…coffee maker?

I’ve been meaning to write about how the commoditization of so many different things that we use on a daily basis has changed our expectations of reliability.  For instance, I find myself thinking that if I get a good 4 years out of something, then that’s amazing.  Even with cars, I think of something 5 years old as aged and ready for replacement.

This is not about always wanting something new.  It’s about forgetting that sometimes we should expect things to last.  How many times do we see a car on the road that is 10 or 15 years old, still running strong and reliably?  Why should I be frustrated with my “old” car that is not yet even 5 years out of the plant?  A car is a bit extreme of an example – let’s look at the items we have around us on a daily basis.  How many people have kitchen appliances that are more than 3 years old (other than the fridge, oven, or dishwasher)?  More importantly, how long do you expect that toaster or blender to last?  How many would be okay if they broke within 5 years?

The reality is that most appliances and have become commodities.  Think of all the things you see at Target that used to be even $50 that are now $25.  How they have become almost throwaway items.  Even something like a computer monitor, which can be less than $100 if you look around, doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore (the environmental impact of perceiving monitors as throwaway is a pretty big deal, as an aside).  And if we were to start throwing all this stuff away when we’re done with them, and they end up in landfills, that’s sad and a massive environmental issue.

I have been “proud” of the fact that I try to invest in purchases whenever possible.  Yes, I can spend $15 and get a really lame coffee maker that will break down after a few years because the coil that heats the bottom plate (that burns the coffee after too long) wears down.  Or I can spend $100 and get a high quality maker with a vacuum carafe that will last me 15 years.  Same thing with my TV, which I bought 4 years ago and still feel will be just great for another 10 (until they come out with 50000p resolution, that is).  And even my home theatre processor/amplifier, which I do intend to replace, is of wonderful quality and build.  It’s just missing some functionality now that blu-ray and HDTV have different connections and sound options.

Speaking of coffee…I’m reading and hearing rave reviews about Starbucks’ new “Via” instant coffee.  Supposedly it’s different from those big cans of instant coffee because

  1. it’s ground more for a french press, which is of course just soaked in hot water rather than dripped through a filter
  2. it’s sold in small, single-serving packets so they are less likely to get stale

After all this time thinking about how everyday appliances have become such commodities, having lost an expectancy of reliability and sturdiness…and now even my coffee maker goes down in the battle…

teach me how to fish

Mere moments ago, I was meeting with some of the administration at the business school where I am pursuing my MBA, and found myself stunned by a statement.  For the most part, I am very happy with my education here.  Most of the faculty I’ve had have been very solid to great most of the time, with only a few duds.  However, I was shocked when I was given the “you’re grad students, you should be able to take care of/figure out X yourself” speech when meeting with one of the academic administrative leaders.  I was seeking advice on how to handle something, and was essentially told to handle part of it myself (not all – I’m trying to be accurate in my depiction so that I am not unfair to the person with whom I was meeting)

Don’t get me wrong – I am 100% behind the “teach someone to fish” model of learning.  I want to learn how to do something – management, finance, whatever – so that I can go out and do it myself.  It can be theoretical, but even then I should be able to come away from that with an ability to apply those theories in a meaningful way.  I would never advocate for someone just handing me or any student a finished or nearly-finished idea.  I want to be stimulated, intellectually, and I want my opinions and positions to be questioned, challenged, and refined.

However, there are people that should be helping me along the way – teaching me how to fish.  Those people are the faculty and, in a broader but perhaps even more important sense, the heads of the various academic departments that help define the direction and goals of that set of faculty.  It is their job to challenge me, to make me, as an adult with presumably some degree of intelligence (a sound presumption since I got into the program), support my positions, etc.

Faculty should also care about whether their students are learning.  They should provide counsel and guidance.  Not hand-holding.  Not provision of answers.  But providing guidance is part of their job.  It doesn’t matter how old I am or that I’m a grad student rather than an undergrad (and I think undergrads should be taught to fish, too, for what it’s worth) – it is a terrible, terrible thing to feel that there are faculty and/or academic administrators out there that feel that there are questions we shouldn’t ask because we should already know the answers.  To have our concerns – even the poorly formed ones – be dismissed as part of “something we should already know.”

After all, when do we know when we are asking one of those questions?  How shall we know if we’re pushing back in the right way, to our benefit, if it is suggested that, as an adult, there are some things that we should not question or should just figure out ourselves?

Starbucks’ Pavlovian training

I recently bought a new coffee mug for use here at work. My other ones, which are great for keeping things piping hot for hours, are all stainless steel on the inside and susceptible to staining. I was therefore hoping for something ceramic which would keep the coffee hot enough for at least a bit longer than Starbucks’ paper cup.

So I bought a mug at Starbucks that looks like…a Starbucks cup. White body, little check boxes on the side for types of coffee, milk, etc, and a cap that even looks just right.

The weird part is that, even though I know this mug sitting on my desk is a travel mug, bought to be reused (obviously), I have this instinct to toss it into the trash. Somehow. Starbucks, through its commoditization of just about every possible coffee & espresso drink and the proliferation of these cups, I have been trained to want to throw this thing away.

It’s kind of sad, really…

communicating and miscommunicating

One professional skill that I both value and work hard at improving is effectively communicating with others.  Effective communication skills is one of the most important attributes one must have in order to be an effective manager and leader.  And it is absolutely required should one have ambitions about moving upward through an organization, in my opinion.  Not that being a good communicator is easy, of course.

I work in a tech field, heading up a tech department, but one of my responsibilities, explicitly, is to develop a strategy about providing the tools to help my overall organization do its job more effectively while not overwhelming others with jargon, too much information, or causing general confusion.

This is not an easy task – many times the benefits of some new technology or equipment are the direct result of what that stuff does, yet what it does is complicated or perhaps out of the ordinary for many folks.  I’m not by any means saying that people aren’t able to comprehend these things, it’s just that they aren’t part of their everyday vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s conceptual, too.  For instance, I remember a conversation with my mother quite a few years ago where I talked about how we used a server to do something at work.  Now, technically, any computer running a service of any kind is a server.  So if you take the computer with which you are reading this post right now – desktop, laptop, whatever – and install the right thing on there, it could be a server.  This might be something that turns the computer into an e-mail gateway (what actually sends out e-mails, and to which your client, like Outlook or Thunderbird, connects to get mail), or perhaps something that tracks the statistics for this or that.  If it’s a service, the box is a server.

To my mother, however, a server was a big, loud, heavy duty machine with lots of blinking lights that the “IT people” kept in a secret, separate room.  Of course, there is a reason why she had that perception – services should be run on enterprise-grade hardware, the kind of stuff my mother was accustomed to seeing.  But the point is that she could not separate the two.  It was a paradigm that was already cemented in place.

Well, it’s my job to help translate that.  To find a way to explain the difference to, in this example, my mother, so that she could understand the benefit she received.

At work, that means that I tell others that we’re looking at getting a “big storage system” instead of a SAN or that we’re working on “a way for all of us to take our Word documents, share them, keep them up to date, and get them off of our personal desktops which might break down” rather than “a collaboration suite with document management tools that is network-based for greater and more effective central management.”  The latter example is far less extreme than the first, but there is still a difference.

I like to think that I do a pretty good job at this, but I have run into a couple of recent surprises.


reconsidering MAD

Under the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State Dulles pushed forth a nuclear policy known as MAD – mutually assured destruction.  It’s a rather frightening approach, but the idea was that if we had enough weapons with enough range and power, we could basically ensure our safety by raising the stakes so high that no country – not even the Soviet Union – would ever dare start a nuclear exchange.

Eisenhower’s and Dulles’ strategy had some particular flaws – their pursuit of a MAD policy lead to one particularly powerful bomb that, should it be dropped from a bomber aircraft, the explosion would be so large that the plane would not be able to get out of the fallout zone even at maximum airspeed.  It was also instituted early enough in the nuclear standoff that neither side had truly considered how to conduct diplomacy and brinksmanship in such a situation.  MAD led quite directly, in my opinion, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is easily the closest we ever came to being blown off the face of the earth.  This has some interesting parallels to our current situation with Iran and North Korea and their respective nuclear programs.


making lemonade

I have to admit – I’m a big fan of the phrase “when the world gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

It’s not that I’m some die-hard optimist, nor that I always see the sunny side.  Actually, I might like that phrase because it helps me get through the day sometimes, when I’m being more pessimistic.  But fundamentally, I think it’s a good way of looking at the world, the curveballs that life tends to throw one’s way, and how to come out of things feeling positive and productive.

I have been thinking more about the phrase, though, and how making lemonade can be very different when put into a different context.  In this case, a business one.

Let’s say that we have various beverage producers out there.  To keep up the analogy, different groups and organizations make different kinds of beverages based on their ability to make better quality lemonade than others.  Perhaps great efficiency or even just staff, stuff like that.  I’m going to split off of the actual lemonade analogy now, but stick to the beverage one.

Some groups out there make wine.  These groups are far from those that must remind themselves to make at least lemonade.  They are not only efficient at dealing with problems, but have the skills and/or resources that allow them to produce a high-quality beverage that requires great skill, lots of equipment, land, etc.  They have the machinery, people, and organizational structure to take, say, sour grapes and make at least decent wine.  That’s pretty impressive.  And such organizations are in a completely different league than those trying to make lemonade.

One step down are those that can make, say, sparkling cider.  Not as much skill is required here – there can be a bit of variation in the flavor, perhaps, as long as it still tastes apple-ish, and one can probably use some artificial flavoring to make up the difference.  Equipment and resources are still needed, though.  Skilled workers must be present to operate the machinery to make the actual juice, convert it to cider, and then carbonate it before bottling.  These people likely won’t have the expert-level knowledge of a winemaker or many of the people that work in a winery.  But they are well-trained, and they can make cider.

So where does that leave people who are just trying to make lemonade?  Well, first of all, while this low rung might not be competing with those that can make wine, those that can make sparking cider present a challenge.  When an organization is surprised by something, or has to work with less-than-ideal tools, if one group has the infrastructure to make cider but the other one can only squeeze lemons, perhaps manually and therefore inefficiently, and throw just sugar in there and mix, then something is amiss.  And if the latter group does not move from lemonade to sparkling cider capability at some point, then that group isn’t growing.  And the leader of that group is not doing his or her job.

It’s rough trying to make lemonade in a market where people only recognize the wine, and may, at times, acknowledge the cider…

why is recycling so hard? oh wait, it isn’t…

We have 3 recycling bins – as big as large rolling trash cans – at our apartment complex.  There are 3 sets of these located next to each dumpster area for about 100 units.  That’s a pretty good ratio.  The bins are clearly labeled:

  • Mixed paper (does not include newspaper, laminated paper, or cardboard)
  • Newspaper (does not include cardboard, laminated paper)
  • Bottles and Cans (PET 1-7, includes glass bottles)

Pretty straightforward, no?  And the fact that it can do PET 1-7 is impressive.  Lots of places can only do PET 1-3 or 1-4.

Yet, this is what I saw this morning:

  • Cardboard in both newspaper and especially in mixed paper (note that none of these allow cardboard)
  • Plastic and glass bottles in plastic and paper bags in the bottles and cans bin (not sure if that’s allowed, but I at least bother to empty the bag out)
  • Newspaper in the mixed paper bin

And I often see even worse dumping of the wrong types into the wrong containers.

Now, I’m sure that in all reality the recycling centers know this will happen and sort everything that comes in accordingly.  They just hope that we stick to some kind of system.  But it never ceases to amaze me how wildly off the placement of all that stuff is.  I try to breakdown cardboard to go by the dumpsters (where it says “Cardboard here, please breakdown any boxes”) but even when I’m lazy I at least put it there.